Do look back

Pub date October 1, 2008
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionStage

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REVIEW By now, the Italian American mean streets of New York — that colorful bustle of energies shadowed so enticingly by the wickedly romantic lives of entrepreneurial mafiosi — are an immovable fixture on the post-Scorsese, post-Sopranos landscape of cultural memory. So much so that, in its more run-of-the-mill versions, this world strikes the outsider as virtual at best: no more than a manufactured dreamscape. But authenticity is hard to fake. And with Chazz Palminteri, you can’t help feeling one degree from the real thing.

This sensation is all the more impressive given that the actor-playwright’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story has a highly cinematic flavor and arc that on reflection seems maybe a bit too picaresque and neat, pitching his boyhood self between two competing father figures and two intimately entwined but distinct paths. Not to mention that it comes projected from a big Broadway-style stage, amid a set that looks like its serviceable sections. The head-on slice of a two-story apartment building and the street lamp announcing the intersection of 187th Street and Belmont Avenue might all have been borrowed from a backlot in Burbank, suggesting something like Sesame Street for wise guys.

But if these sound like reservations, they’re not. The revival tour of Palminteri’s A Bronx Tale, courtesy of Best of Broadway, is a vital and greatly entertaining piece of work, driven by a tour-de-force solo performance that must be every bit as deft as it was nearly 20 years ago off-Broadway, before it was transposed to the screen, with Palminteri starring opposite Robert De Niro. In fine trim, the now-50-something Palminteri holds Golden Gate Theatre’s ample stage effortlessly for the 90 riveting minutes of director Jerry Zaks’ razor-sharp production. Moreover, Palminteri’s playful, inextinguishable exuberance throughout suggests this is no mere attempt to cash in on an old hit, but rather a deep-seated desire to consider afresh a treasured patch of hallowed ground.

That patch — 187th and Belmont in the Bronx of the 1960s — comes initially bounded by the actor-memoirist’s nine-year-old stoop-bound world of baseball, pasta sauce, and corner doo-wop crooning. Until one day, that is, when little Cologio Palminteri’s refusal to rat out the perpetrator of a murder that unfolds a few steps from his house brings him under the paternal wing of the neighborhood’s rising mob boss, Sonny — setting up a conflict internal and external between Sonny and the boy’s upright bus driver father, Lorenzo. After leaping ahead to his 17th year, the focus shifts somewhat to a budding interracial romance between Cologio and a neighborhood girl, as well as a test of trust between the young man and his adopted gangster father figure. But the pace never flags.

In Palminteri’s expert quick-change characterizations, the story brims with an assortment of suitably outsize personalities carefully, lovingly etched by human idiosyncrasies, foibles, doubts, and contradictions. No doubt one sees here the hand of devilishly charming storytelling, but beneath the theatrical/cinematic veneer is an authenticity of place and passion that reaches to the bone.


Through Oct 19

Tues.–Sat., 8 p.m. (also Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.); Sun., 2 p.m., $40–$85

Golden Gate Theatre

1 Taylor, SF